At the beginning of his introduction to his new recut of the third Godfather movie, titled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, Frances Ford Coppola offers an important clarification.
Adding the word “Coda” to an already unwieldy title, Coppola makes a subtle but significant admission: that the third movie is, by his definition, an “additional overture”, little more than an epilogue to the first two classics which made it possible. Part Three, he says, was always supposed to be that way. An addendum. Never an entry of its own to the Godfather story.
Well, that’s what most who saw Part Three said when it was first released thirty years ago. Having not ever seen the original cut of what has become the ugly duckling of the trilogy, I was very happy that Coppola’s new Coda is as good as it is. But, above all, relieved.
Of course, it’s not nearly as good as the first two. No master of editing could make that happen. An abundance of homages to the first films quickly become tedious.
In stark contrast to the slick politics of Part Two, the relationship between Corleones and the Vatican is convoluted, heavy-handed and not particularly gripping, either. New characters strain to fill the hefty shadows of their predecessors and, inevitably, don’t. Unfortunately, tragically, Sofia Coppola’s acting is a little iffy — if not the notorious flop performance many have spent the past three decades calling it. And Robert Duvall was right when he turned his part down: the script isn’t exactly a work of art.
But Coppola was right to recut the most notable of his failures — on which, more later — and has in truth done a staggering job. How many directors have cut the runtime of a film and at the same time improved it? These are no surface-level changes, either: Coda is minutes shorter than the theatrical Part Three. What that original version has which this doesn’t I don’t particularly want to know. Yet what this version has is a truly stunning final few frames to rival the first two, a clear change from Part Three. Having “The Death of Michael Corleone” in the title makes latter plot events clear enough, but what Coppola gives his most iconic character in Coda is a fate much worse than death. The final scene (we always knew Coppola could nail one of those) and — more importantly — the final shots are unforgettable. They manage to frame the entire series in a new lens and offer a profundity otherwise lacked in long stretches of Coda. It’s a triumph.
Maybe we should be less surprised. After all, this isn’t Coppola’s first rodeo on the recut front: he has fiddled with Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club, to good effect, in the last couple of years alone. But this is thought to be the one which achieves the biggest jump on its predecessor, and that’s of little surprise.
The good news for us is that Coppola has plenty more of his less successful films to tinker with. His infamous musical One From the Heart, for example, has real potential and stands out as a good candidate. But he could in truth go in a dozen different directions. Judging by his skill on Coda, we should all be looking forward to what Coppola does next.